United States: IRS Urges Partnerships To Amend Partnership Agreements To Address Expanded Role Of Partnership Representatives

The new partnership audit regime, enacted as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 ("BBA"), allows the IRS to assess and collect  unpaid tax at the entity level, rather than from individual partners.   The BBA is effective for tax years after 2017 and replaces the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act ("TEFRA").  Under TEFRA, a partnership designates one of its partners as the "tax matters partner" ("TMP") to act for the entity in proceedings with the IRS.  Instead, in the BBA regime, that person is called the "partnership representative" ("PR") and has far greater authority than a TMP.  It is imperative that all partnerships understand the changes that are coming and prepare accordingly.

Most significantly, the PR is the exclusive point of contact with the IRS and has the sole responsibility to bind both the partnership and all of the partners to his or her actions.   At a conference on June 16, Brendan O'Dell, an attorney-adviser in the Treasury Department's Office of Tax Policy, emphasized the significance of understanding the difference between the TMP and PR.

Under TEFRA, the TMP was required to be a partner, and was subject to numerous obligations to other partners with regards to the partnership's interactions with IRS. Under TEFRA, all partners other than the TMP had significant rights during an audit, including notification rights, the right to participate in proceedings and contradict the actions taken by the TMP.  During the audit and administrative appeals, the TMP did not have the authority to bind the other partners.

Conversely, under the BBA regime, the PR is not required to be a partner with "skin in the game" but rather can be any person, including a non-partner, provided they have a substantial presence in the U.S. Moreover, the PR has sole authority to bind the partnership, and all partners and the partnership are bound by the actions of the PR and any final decision during all stages of the proceeding (audit, appeals and litigation).  This includes the power to bind the partnership and all partners to extensions of the statute of limitations and available elections.  Other partners no longer have a statutory right to notice of, or to participate in, the partnership-level audit proceeding.  Moreover, the decisions of the PR can economically impact the partnership, current partners, and former partners.  For example, a PR has the ability to unilaterally decide whether an audit adjustment must be borne by the partnership or by the partners.

Thus, this expanded authority granted to the PR is likely to lead to disputes, and potentially litigation, between partners and the PR. According to Mr. O'Dell, in the event of such a dispute, the IRS will not get involved and "will still treat the actions of the partnership representative as binding on the partnership and to those partners."  In order to alleviate such issues, the IRS emphasized addressing the authority of the PR in the partnership agreement before the BBA regime becomes effective, as many, but not all, of the powers granted to the PR under BBA may be circumscribed by the partnership agreement.  These issues, thus, "put a lot of pressure on the front end for drafting agreements" and adding in adequate protections, O'Dell said.

The IRS has made clear that once the new partnership audit rules are effective, it will exclusively communicate with and seek consent from the PR. Thus, any protection or notice afforded to partners, former partners, and the partnership must come from the partnership agreement.

We highly recommend that all partnerships review and revise their partnership agreements before the BBA takes effect (years after December 31, 2017) in order to address the changes of the new law. 

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